Snakes in the grass

The solstice is weeks away, but the heat has arrived in New Mexico and the prairie rattlers are sun bathing. This guy was hanging out not far from my house last week. It may be the Hopi rattlesnake sub-species, but I’m no herpetologist and that’s only a guess.

It’s time to step carefully and keep the dog on a short rein.

GM

Sharp-dressed Bird

I really like sharptails. If we ever run out of bobwhites in Texico, I’ll probably move north and hunt them fulltime.

Looking, first, at some of the sharpie’s kinfolk, I’d classify the ruffed grouse as the haughty blue-blood of the clan. He frequents the upper east and he’s often chased by folks who smoke pipes and belong to gunclubs. The spruce grouse is the inbred mountain-man of the family. He’s dumber than a stump, and that’s usually where he’s standing and staring blankly when a shotgun points his way.

Between these two intellectual extremes, we have the sharptail. He’s the sodbusting prairie-dweller that wakes up each morning with a different M.O. When it’s hot and windy he’ll flush underfoot and give you a decent chance. On cold days he’ll jump from the grass when the truck door slams and fly out of sight. I like his furry little feets and the way he cackles when he flushes. It’s a nasal, mocking, staccato, yodel that reminds me of the grade school punk that always needed an ass-whooping, but never got one.

Most endearing, though, is the sharpie’s little stomping and spinning jiggy-jag that he does when the ladies of spring are around. Thanks to Dawson Dunning for shooting this incredibly cool footage. – TB

The sounds

My eyes won’t stop watering. It’s the lack of sleep. Three a.m. wake-ups are by far the biggest drawback to turkey hunting.

To stop the spigot, I close my eyes. Surely I’ll hear a gobbler if he lets loose. To make sure, I take an auditory inventory. I start with the close sounds first – the buzz of the mosquitoes, the warblers and wrens, breeze through the trees. Now I expand – vehicle hum of a far-away road. Maybe a dog bark, way off? Maybe.

And then, seemingly from within my head, a “Bum. Bum, bum. Bumbumbumbumbumbum.” Sort of like a lawnmower starting. Then it’s gone.

It’s a male ruffed grouse, somewhere within a quarter mile of the pine tree I’m nestled up against. He’s drumming, which is his way of marking out his spring breeding territory.

I’ve been told drumming creates a mini sonic boom. It might. For me, it creates hope.

Lamenting empty pockets

A pair of .22 rimfire case heads adorn the pivot pin, covering the cracked walnut scales. The quick and dirty repair job has held up for nearly two decades now. Abused it may be, but still the most useful tool ever invented.

It can slice cheese, open boxes or trim sheets of paper. It can cut rope or trim arrow shafts from straight-stalked dogwood.
Last year, it boned out a 3×3 muley and cut a mesquite thorn from my swollen pinky finger.
Years ago, with the help of several glasses of whiskey and a Zippo, it seared a relief hole in a friend’s blackened finger nail at a bar room table.
Countless times, I have used a half-open knife to pull a piece of cholla cactus from the dog’s leg and sometimes from my own.
Every once in a while, I head into the workshop and build a new folding knife for myself.

Always though, I end up giving the new knife away and returning to my old standbys. A two-bladed Case that was a gift and the carbon bladed slip-joint knife my dad gave me decades ago.
There are others, an auto I built on a whim, several variations of factory-made liner locks, lockbacks and other stainless steel contraptions that were made for intentions other than whittling and minor surgery. They lie in a drawer, unused. Pointless in their existence.
It’s the little brown knife that proves most useful, though I fear even it faces an uphill battle.
Knives are steadily becoming relics, feared weapons of mass destruction.
Only a few years ago, I traveled on flights all across the country with a modest knife in my pocket.
I took it to school every day from the 4th grade on. Now, I can’t go into the Post Office, the County Courthouse or dozens of other places because of a small carbon-steel blade that doesn’t even lock open.
How do I teach my sons to carry knives? How will they be able to trim a nail or cut a toothpick when a Swiss Army knife can get you kicked out of school?
The post 911 era has brought some worthwhile security reforms, but in my opinion it has limited what I consider a basic right.
In the grand scheme of things, my 3-inch knife is not any more dangerous than a ballpoint pen or a medium-sized rock. It’s certainly less dangerous than the two-ton cars which we routinely let 17-year-olds drive to school.
That schools trust kids with cars and condoms but can’t trust them with a pocket knife baffles me. That adults can’t be trusted with a knife in many public places blows my mind.
Who are these people that think a pocket knife is to be feared?
Maybe the more pertinent question, who are these people that don’t carry a knife and what do they do when they need to cut something?
The people without a knife are foreign to me, unknown and unknowing.
Familiar is the feel of smooth walnut and filed tool steel.
Adrift in my pocket, surrounded by loose change and lint, the little brown knife awaits its next task.

– G. M.

Materials

So little of what we’re left with at the end of the upland season is tangible. Sure, there are guns to clean, maybe some birds still left in the freezer (though I rarely show that much self-discipline), and inevitably, finding new ways to try and occupy highly-energetic four-legged athletes. Ultimately, though, most of it will live on only in memory.

But then there are these feathers laying in front of me on the tying table. Ruffed grouse. Sharptail. Pheasant. These aren’t detached, consumable products in neatly-labeled plastic bags purchased from the fly store, packaged and shipped from Dog Knows Where – these came from birds my dog and I worked hard to find, birds I caused to drop from the sky, birds that, well, to be totally honest, he only sometimes half-heartedly retrieved in that way that so many pointers do who can’t be bothered with such mundane tasks, tearing off already to find the next holding covey instead.

These feathers sit in front of me on the table now, haphazardly strewn about amongst threads, tinsels, furs, tying tools, in a system of highly-subjective organization that others would likely call a mess; raw material from which I hope something useful will eventually emerge. The flies that will come of these feathers will occupy a special place, if not in my fly box, then at least in my mind, easily recognizable as different than those commercially tied by others in Sri Lanka or the Phillipines from materials of mysterious origin.

And when I remove that ragged, grouse bedecked fly from the cutthroat’s mouth, and release it back into that little creek high up in the newly melted alpine, I’ll flash back to that day last October when I was up to my knees in mud, shotgun in hand, trying in vain to keep up with a dog tracing currents of bird scent across a sweeping landscape, pulled along by compulsions I’ve never fully understood or bothered to explore; satisfied instead by knowing that not doing these things would cause a slow withering of my soul, which is simply not an option.

– Smithhammer

Outside apps

A couple of weeks ago the guy in front of me at the grocery store was paying for his sixer in change and I was browsing the magazine rack when I came across a quarterly publication called iPhone Life.
There is a magazine ($6.99) that is dedicated to the iPhone? And it’s in its second year of publishing?
I’m sure I don’t have to mention that there were no outdoor magazines on the rack. Not even a copy of National Geographic.
Not a single periodical relating something of the human experience, or any experience. Just celebrity gossip and a magazine dedicated to a cellphone.
This news so disturbed me that when I got home, I went to said rag’s Web site.
The lead post on the Web site was titled “Why I Bought My Kids iPhones.
The post starts out, “My kids are not spoiled (well, maybe a little bit), I bought them iPhones for economic reasons. Let me explain. The cost of a new Nintendo or Sony PSP is…”
My kids aren’t old enough to want anything other than milk and attention, but it seems to me that buying kids an iPhone might be counter productive to being a kid.
A phone is a tool. Hell, I have a Blackberry and I’ll be the first to admit that it makes my job easier and me more productive. Still,

I don’t want my kids to start obsessively checking their e-mail until someone is paying them to.
Much like a shotgun, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. I love shotguns, but the reason I buy them is the high lonesome country that I visit with them in hand.
The existence of iPhone Life suggests to me that some people might think their iPhone is actually part of their life or that it somehow matters what kind of phone you have or what you can do with it.
All this tells me that there are a lot of people who don’t spend enough time outside in the company of a good dog.

Luther

He was the “assistant foreman” on a ranch in West Texas. I had a gate key to that ranch and permission to hunt quail, but nothing else.

At dusk on a January afternoon, I was parked on the edge of a CRP patch when Luther came clattering up the road in his derelict Ram Charger. His two Blue Healers were standing on the toolbox and peering over the cab. I clipped my pointers to the tailgate and filled their water pans as Luther ground to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He left his truck running because it likely wouldn’t start again if he didn’t.”

“Any birds in that?”

“Three coveys.”

“Get any?”

“Five.”

When the dust and exhaust fumes cleared I caught a whiff of a sickly perfumey smell wafting from his open truck window. He was somewhat shaven and his hair was slicked back. He had on a black felt hat and one of those patchwork Garth Brooks type shirts.

“Luther, where you off to?”

“Town.”

That could have been any number of places but I assumed he was referring to Lubbock.

“What’s the occasion?”

“I got a date.”

“Are you wearing Hai Karate?”

He flashed a sheepish grin and I noticed that his scraggly mustache had been touched up with a grease pencil, a Sharpie, or something similar. It didn’t do much for me, but maybe she would like it.

“Who’s the luck lady?”

“Gal I grow’d up with. I ain’t seen her in years. She’s lately divorced and living back with her mom, and them.” He leaned over to his rearview mirror and checked his teeth; then he plucked a toothpick from his hat brim. “She’s a real looker.”

“Yeah?”

“Head twirler back in high school.”

Luther looked at me with a wink and a nod. I turned and looked at his dogs. They turned and looked mine.

“So, where you taking her?”

“Kenny Chesney concert. She won some free tickets through the radio. She answered four trivia questions about livestock and politics and all.”

“Smart gal?”

“Apparently.”

“You taking your dogs to the concert?”

He pointed into the bed of his truck with his thumb. “They’ll be fine back yonder. Anybody tries to steal em will thank better of it when he has to pry some teeth off his boys.”

He waited for me to reply to that but I didn’t. He watched me unclip my pointers and open their boxes. It was getting dark and I had an hour on the road back to my motel.

“Whatta you give for a bird dog like them?”

“A lot; depends on their breeding and their finish.”

He studied the dogs as they spun and jumped into their boxes. “You gonna hunt again tomorrow?”

“Not sure; sounds like we’ve got some bad weather coming.”

“Well, if you do, I seen a big covey at that wire gap going into the croton pasture this morning. Least I thank they was quail—mighta been doves—do they run along the ground?”

“Doves?”

“Yeah.”

“No, not as a rule.”

With that, he let off the clutch and his trucked lurched and sputtered down the road. After about fifty yards he stopped and hung his head out the window.

“Hey—if you come by the house in the morning and see my truck but I don’t answer the door….”

“Yeah?”

“…don’t keep on knockin, cause I might be doin some good?”

It was 22-degrees and spitting snow when I turned out my dogs the next morning. I hunted for a couple of hours before the wind picked up and it started dumping. On the way out of the ranch I drove past Luther’s house. His truck was out front with the driver-side door standing wide open. The snow was blowing sideways into the cab. His two Healers were sitting on the porch.

Two weeks later the paper said that Luther had been arrested for public intoxication and assault on a gal that was once a head twirler. I hunted that ranch one more time on the last weekend of the season and Luther’s house was locked up and dark. I never heard what happened to his dogs, and I never found that covey by the wire gap leading into the croton pasture.

– TB

Gear season

The upland season is fading the rearview, sheds haven’t fallen and turkey and fishing season are not yet on the horizon. That makes it covetousness season.
Time to sort through mud-filled shotgun hulls and scrape bloody feathers off unfired shells.
Time to finally rinse out that dingy water bottle the dog and I shared for the second half of the season.
Maybe sharpen a few knives and relace some boots.
Mostly though, it’s time to browse the catalogues and covet things I do not need and cannot afford.
For example, the CSMC A10 shotgun.

I have no need for a sidelock stack barrel, but I have been looking longingly at used Beretta S2s for years.

Now, along comes an American made gun with hand detachable sidelocks for about what I would pay for a used S2.
Do I need a straight stocked 20 guage sidelock with case coloring and an extra set of 28 guage barrels?
Maybe not during the quail season, but right now?
Absolutely.

– GM

Mouse hunting

The setter people entertain themselves these days by mouse hunting. We take our daily walks on the bench above the home place now in the light of spring, not the dark of winter. North Willow Creek is still fairly clear, but it is coming up and will be over the banks in a few weeks. The ice has abandoned its shoulders. The geese are hooked up and flying in pairs. Mallards jump from the ponds beneath the high ditch and yesterday, I thought I heard the first sandhill of the season.

The classic hard point with two honoring.

My thoughts trend to fishing now and a new six weight in the quiver and a section of the Missouri I haven’t fished yet. Screwing around with a spey rod, as if I need another hobby. Reminds me of when I transitioned to tele from downhill skiing. More crap to buy, more gear. I rounded out the fly rod collection this spring and have a whole box full of articulated streamers.

Hunting is off somewhere on a far rim and if I follow the Solstice Rule–no conversations about hunting are allowed until the days start getting shorter–then I can’t even talk about it. We invented the Solstice Rule to avoid the pain of not hunting, but it really is poor salve for such.

And yet, the major trips are already blocked out for the fall: up to the Front the first week of September, down to Arizona (they are getting a lot of quail rain this spring) in December, Nevada chukar in late October . . . . But now I’m hunting big rainbows and browns and planning summer pack trips. The other day a lady friend and I rode the horses to the Pony Bar and flushed two sets of paired-up Huns on the neighbor’s ranch. I have permission to hunt there. I tried to not think about that–that time so distant.

The finest mouse hunter in all the Realm.

And so, sandhills and trumpeter swans and Candada geese and red-winged blackbirds. The guns are cleaned and gun-safed and the only shooting I’m doing is my .45 Kimber auto at targets. For fun. For something that goes bang. Kind of like how a brown hits a hopper. The smell of sap rises in the cottonwoods and there’s a drift scent of beefsteak sizzling over the alder coals of the season’s first barbecue. It’s gin and tonic season. Spritzer season. I’ll survive.

The setter people? Mouse hunting and chewing on the legs of winter killed whitetails. Damned carnivores.

–TR

Rough shooting

As it turns out, I need a gun-bearer.

I’ve been reading a copy of Shooting By Moor, Field and Shore, an almanac of shooting in England, published 1929. It paints a portrait of a different time and a different world. Furthermore, it points out the inadequacy of my low brow ways. In the brief section on “walk up hunting” as opposed to shooting driven game, the authors point out the obvious burdens associated with “rough shooting.”

“In order to kill game on a rough shoot, you must either walk it up, or indulge in impromptu driving either with the help of a friend of friends. You have to carry your own gun all day, and most probably the game bag as well.”

Imagine the horror of having to “carry your own gun” and game whilst hunting. I should have flipped through this book before I logged a hundred or so miles to shoot only a handful of quail this season, carrying my own gun the whole time.

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